Opinion, Smartphone

What Is a “Flagship” Smartphone?

The term “flagship” smartphone is thrown around quite a bit in the smartphone business, even if a device that is marketed as such isn’t necessarily flagship status. Not only can this be quite confusing to consumers, it may be misleading in some instances.

If you’re wondering exactly what criteria a phone has to meet in order for it to be considered a proper flagship smartphone, this article is for you – it will help you to evaluate whether or not a particular phone is really a flagship device. Without further ado, let’s get to it.

A Fast Enough Chipset

This is arguably the most important criterion for a flagship smartphone. After all, the chipset of a phone determines how fast it feels and how well it can run demanding games. A flagship phone is supposed to be the best offering from a brand – it wouldn’t make sense for it to not offer a good level of performance.

So what chipset is considered fast enough then? Well, for 2021, any phone running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 – or the newer Snapdragon 888+ – chipset will be able to offer the performance level of a high-end, flagship phone.

However, just because a phone is equipped with such a chipset – such as the excellent Xiaomi 11T Pro – doesn’t automatically make it a flagship device. It has to meet the other criteria listed in this article, such as..

Solid, Premium Build Quality

A flagship phone should feel like one, which is exactly why I wouldn’t consider the 11T Pro to be a flagship device. Yes, it may offer flagship-tier performance, but it doesn’t have particularly great build quality. After all, it has a mostly plastic construction, which doesn’t exactly scream premium.

Granted, some plastic phones can feel premium, but in most cases, the chassis of a flagship device should have minimal plastic. Take the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra or the latest iPhone 13 Pro – all of them have glass panels on the front and back with a metal frame. Not only do they look great, they feel great to hold as well.

Do note that there are phones with premium build quality (and pricing) that are powered by, say, a Snapdragon 7 series chip; I wouldn’t consider these to be flagship devices. Don’t get me wrong, Snapdragon 7 series chips are quite fast, but they’re still one rung below a Snapdragon 8 series processor.

Capable, Versatile Camera System

Now, this is what sets a mediocre flagship smartphone from a truly class-leading flagship device. Almost any phone maker can slap on a fast processor to a device, but not all of them can deliver a camera system that fits a flagship smartphone.

Usually, a proper flagship phone has a versatile camera system with at least three different sensors: a primary shooter – higher pixel count isn’t necessarily better here – an ultra-wide angle lens, and finally, a telephoto zoom camera.

Another thing: just because a phone has a a ton of rear cameras doesn’t mean they have these three sensors. It’s important to take a look at each of the sensor to determine how versatile the camera system is. For example, a “depth” or “macro” lens doesn’t really meaningfully impact camera performance. You’re better off without them.

Bright, Vibrant, Fast Display

The display of a phone is the one hardware you constantly look at, so needless to say, it’s essential for a flagship phone to have a bright, vibrant panel. There are several things to consider when you’re assessing the display of a phone: resolution, display type, and refresh rate.

A Full HD screen – that is, a 1080p resolution – is the absolute bare minimum for a flagship phone. It’s even better if the panel has a higher resolution, but a sharper screen is not necessarily better. It’s important to consider the panel type too.

More often than not, the best flagship phones are equipped with OLED panels, such as the majority of Samsung’s high-end devices. Compared to an LCD display, an OLED screen has several advantages: not only do they have deeper, darker blacks, OLED panels can also produce much more vibrant colours with a wider dynamic range.

Granted, that doesn’t mean an LCD IPS screen doesn’t belong on a flagship smartphone. A high quality, properly calibrated IPS panel can easily outperform a lower quality OLED display. So don’t dismiss a flagship phone just because it has an IPS panel – calibration and panel quality matters too.

Last but certainly not least is the refresh rate of the display. A typical flagship phone in the market now has a 120Hz screen, which will look smoother than a standard 60Hz panel. This is because a 120Hz panel can churn out 120 frames per second; with more frames, you get a smoother viewing experience.

And there you have it: a proper flagship smartphone should meet all of the criteria mentioned above. As a side note, it is also important for a flagship phone to offer good battery life, but this is not easily measurable by battery capacity alone. After all, different phone makers have different power management settings.

Nonetheless, these are what you need to know about flagship smartphones. The next time you see a phone that’s marketed as a flagship device, you can now judge it based on these criteria.